Higher education should be free – of state control

In the row about AC Grayling’s new college, the suffocating effect of state funding has been overlooked.

Angus Kennedy

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One of the most remarkable things about the ongoing row surrounding AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities (NCH) is, as Brendan O’Neill argued on spiked, the extent and the depth of the hostility to the setting up of a private university outside the public higher-education (HE) sector. Such criticism turns reality on its head.

NCH is widely said to be the thin end of the wedge of a Conservative-driven attempt to marketise higher education, to turn the academy into an exclusive deli: a resumption of the offensive of the 1980s that turned the university into a grocer’s shop. In truth, Thatcher’s Tories nationalised rather than privatised the HE sector. British universities and academics operate in a planning and managerial culture that would make Soviet Gosplan apparatchiks blush, something ignored in the sound and fury of student protest and smoke bombs.

To understand the current state of education some context and background to the debate is required. As the Grayling row erupted last week, Oxford University dons passed a vote of no confidence in David Willetts, the universities and science minister, by 283 votes to five. Although this was a token protest by what remains of the left at Oxford (less than 300 voted out of the 4,500 scholars in the Oxford congregation), it was still met with rapture in some of the broadsheet press, described as a blow against the ‘destructive forces of the market upon a common, and much loved, public good’. But the problem with HE today is that it is public to such an extent – in terms of state control – that it is no longer much good.

The Oxford vote was a reminder of a much more hotly contested debate in 1985, when Oxford dons voted 783 to 319 to deny Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree on the grounds of the damage her government’s cuts were doing to the entire public-education system. The Iron Lady’s response to this symbolic snub was savage: in 1988 she and education secretary Kenneth Baker unleashed the GERBIL.

The GERBIL, or ‘Great Education Reform Bill’, was explicitly designed to bring ivory-tower academics to the heel of the state. Titled ‘Meeting the Challenge’, the education White Paper was a direct attack on the ‘enemy within’ the university: those left-leaning academics whom Thatcher accused of ‘pushing out poison’. It removed tenure, that lynchpin of academic independence and freedom. It swept away the relatively autonomous University Grants Committee, replacing it with a Universities Funding Council with a built-in minority of academics, creating essentially a rubber stamp for central government policies and cheques. It removed polytechnics from local-authority control, elevating them to the same plane as universities and placing them both in the hands of the new Higher Education Funding Council (now HEFCE), allowing ‘scope for better management and… greater responsiveness to management needs’. And it brought the commercial, business-oriented, skills-focused educational ethos of the polytechnic into the college cloister.

Since 1988, British universities have, in effect, been part of a vast public corporation, an Education Board, subject to an unprecedented level of centralised state planning, funded annually subject to a continuous process of auditing and review, transformed into factories for processing ever-more students to the demands of the skills market. New Labour enthusiastically took the baton on education from the Conservatives and layered on its own targets-driven ideology, its nakedly instrumentalist approach to knowledge and, in particular, its resolute hatred of anything that smacked of elitism. What remained of the walls of the ivory towers was torn down in the name of universal access. The language of the academy is now thoroughly managerial; its buzzwords are research ‘output’, value for money, key performance indicators, indicators of esteem, units of assessment, and impact.

Research councils have taken on this language with the enthusiasm of new converts. Academics, while hostile to what they perceived as Thatcher’s free-market philistinism, rushed to embrace social-inclusion policies, subordinating education in the process to state social-engineering. This left them with no argument against the instrumental language of impact and metrics. (There were, of course, some honourable exceptions.)

Everybody now talks about value for money and access to all. Terry Eagleton, in his bilious rant against the ‘scab’ Grayling, said ‘just when the real Oxford and Cambridge have been dragging themselves inch by inch into the modern democratic world… an ultra-Oxbridge is being proposed which will probably have an even lower intake of working-class students than Cambridge did when I was there in the 1960s’. What he means is that when Oxbridge has been so successfully placed under state control, it would be fatal to allow a dissident institution to establish itself.

Warwick University, once a hotbed of academic radicalism, is just one example of the way in which value-for-money is central to HE today. An Independent article in 1998 described how it embraced business and even owns one: the Warwick Manufacturing Group. It spent millions on a television studio to promote its Arts Centre and academics. Its spokesman at the time said: ‘We don’t let the students touch any of this. It’s purely to promote the university.’ A student was quoted as saying: ‘On an educational level, it’s not living up to what I expected. It’s more “This is a business”, and we’re part of that business. There are lots of facilities but they seem to spend more time on research and impressing conference guests.’

Above all, HEFCE is dominant over this public concern: its Research Assessment Exercises – no more than a quality-control system at best, lacking any exercise of judgement or expertise – determine funding allocations on a crude star-review system, effectively measuring units of output and universities’ ability to fulfil the quotas demanded by central planners. Over the past 25 years, successive governments, with remarkably little opposition from within the academy, have turned the HE sector into the research division of UK PLC. The academy no longer organises itself around a set of shared values like academic freedom, excellence and knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

It is in this context that one should assess Grayling’s college. The academy is no longer capable of putting up an argument as to why higher education is a good in itself. Given the bankruptcy of the HE sector, the level of state control, and the fact that it is organised around hostility to academic excellence, attempts to create such private autonomous institutions are to be applauded. Not all will be good, not all will succeed. Grayling’s attempt, although reportedly in favour of excellence, is still lamentably wrapped in the language of employability and skills. That said, it does three good things before its doors even open: it holds up a mirror to the lack of independence in the state HE sector; it places a focus on the particular problems of the humanities vis-à-vis the sciences; and it values the public intellectual. Grayling’s fellow dissidents such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson, whether you agree with their ideas or not, all write big books rather than narrow monographs designed to win HEFCE points.

To argue that Grayling has a right to set up his own university is not to endorse a Tory plot to privatise the universities. The debate about universities today quickly becomes falsely polarised between those who think that HE must ideally be public and free to use and their imagined enemies who think it should be private and expensive. What is missing is a debate about whether or not it is good. An excellent education is priceless, and the only way that excellence can be put back into the heart of the academy is by making it free. Not ‘free’ in the sense of no fees, but in the sense of it regaining autonomy and independence from state control.

Academic freedom is the precondition of excellence and the public sector is resolutely opposed to academic freedom. Private institutions, conversely, may charge £18,000 fees but they are free in the only way that really matters. If this kind of institution is successful, it will demand a response from the public sector as to why it does not value freedom and excellence.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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